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Saudi Arabia Against Jihad Recruitment for Syria

10:34 AM, Feb 13, 2014 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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As reported in the Washington Post on February 3, tough punishment of Saudi Arabians who travel abroad for jihad has been decreed by King Abdullah, absolute ruler of the desert monarchy.

The royal edict imposes prison sentences of three to twenty years on Saudis who fight outside the country, and five to thirty years if they join terror groups, provide material assistance to them, or incite joining them. These three clauses cover the historic components of armed jihad: direct combat, financial donations, and advocacy. In Islamic literature, they are designated “jihad of the sword, of money, and of the pen.” All such acts are of equal merit to the jihadist.

King Abdullah’s initiative is viewed as an effort to block young Saudis from fighting in al Qaeda and other radical groups in Syria.

Allegations of Saudi backing for Sunni fanatics in Syria have become standard in propaganda by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, his Iranian patrons, and Hezbollah. The narrative of the bloodthirsty Damascus dictatorship and its allies elides the origin of the Syrian conflict in “Arab Spring” protests for democracy and refers to it as a “Wahhabi invasion of Syria.”

King Abdullah’s policy should undermine such claims. But numerous people who refuse to accept that Saudi Arabia has changed, however slowly, since King Abdullah took power in 2005, reject this clarification.

As noted in the Post, for example, a “Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known in Arabic by its acronym HASEM, said in a statement . . . that Saudi rulers are responsible for encouraging extremist ideology in the kingdom in exchange for retaining power and support from the religious establishment. The group said the kingdom secretly tolerates citizens fighting abroad to keep them from carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia.”

Others argue that the anti-jihad measures represent an obstacle to further reform in the kingdom. A statement by Said Boumedouha, Middle East Deputy Director at Amnesty International, was also quoted in the Post account, declaring, “This disturbing new law confirms our worst fears—that the Saudi Arabian authorities are seeking legal cover to entrench their ability to crack down on peaceful dissent and silence human rights defenders.”

However well such allegations may play with Saudophobes, they betray a basic misunderstanding of the dynamics of Saudi reform.

Saudi Arabia has all the wherewithal imaginable to repress dissenters. Finding new support for such practices in the anti-jihad ruling is about the same as discovering suddenly that spicy food is popular in Mexico. What else is old?

But Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, a body known for selectivity in its condemnations, and visceral attacks on Israel, commented, “King Abdullah was once considered a cautious reformer but the new terrorism law could wipe out a decade of the most modest progress. . . . Instead of loosening the reins on Saudi society, the king is empowering criminal justice authorities to arrest and try peaceful activists along with suspected terrorists.”

Such a view is superficial, to say the least. Further opening to civil society in Saudi Arabia depends on relieving the country of its biggest obstacle: the power of the Wahhabi clerics, established for centuries as the official representatives of Saudi Islam. It is true that Wahhabi zealots have appealed for jihadist volunteers to go to Syria. King Abdullah’s firm opposition to such manipulation is necessary to prevent the Saudi reform process from being diverted by the alarmed feelings of Sunni Muslims in that land, as elsewhere, about the Syrian horrors.

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